Archive for August, 2009

Radicalization of Education Reform

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

David Wiley posted a concern about feeling out of place at the OpenEducation Conference in Vancouver last week. Since he started the conference four years ago, his sense of disconnection from the zeitgeist of the event is interesting. In particular, he’s concerned about the radicalization of education. I tried to post a response last night…but his site informed me it was a “duplicate post” (whatever that means). If I can’t use Wiley’s microphone, guess I’ll use my own here. This is the comment I tried to post:

Hi David,

Interesting post. I remember reading something about you proclaiming the end of universities by 2020 if they don’t change…and even offering your own certificates for course completion. Or perhaps I’ve read about you in a recent Fast Company article on higher education transformation. How radical of you! :)

A few somewhat random, but loosely connected, comments:

I share your concern about some of the conversations occurring in the edtech field (I think it’s broader than the OpenEd conference) relating to the role of universities. Thinking on educational reform is increasingly radical (ok, maybe it’s been radical for decades – i.e. Illich, Freire, and even Dewey). A good bit of radical thinking can be healthy, as long as it is radical thinking directed at the right object at the right time and in the right manner.

Experiences like you detail here are great for clarifying what a person actually believes. Sometimes I think I believe something…but, as I face the logical outcome of a world organized on those principles, I often find I pull back and rethink (or moderate).

At the opening of our policy meeting at OpenEd09, I mentioned that I was concerned we were going to become “Stallman” if we did not find a way to begin to speak at the power table. A group of bloggers and grassroots movements will not re-create the education system. Why? Integrated systems (networks of networks) are very difficult to change. Universities as we know them today will continue to play a role because of their tight integration to the power structures of society. In this instance, I think we need to “play within” the system in order to enact change.

However, and this gets to our conversation in your previous post, not all aspects of education are integrated in a networked manner. When an aspect of education is linearly integrated (like textbook publishing), significant disruption can occur without impacting the system of education. If all textbook content was made available in digital form, would we really suffer? I think not.

Now, to turn to your discussion of confusing means and ends, OERs are a lever of change. (I addressed university-level change in relation to OERs here as a post-OpenEd reflection: http://www.connectivism.ca/?p=151). Education is concerned with information creation/exchange. As Frank and Gabler argue, universities map the reality of the society in which they exist. As we begin to do new things with information, we also need to begin to shape our institutions differently. Higher education is in a period of rebalancing. I recently read a UNESCO report (.pdf) (pre-reading for the world conference on future of HE in France) that explored the dimension of change impact universities: globalization, technology, internationalization, research agendas, etc. Change is in the air.

While highly integrated systems don’t disappear overnight, they do change and evolve. Consider the growth of international education in Australia. Education is their 2nd or 3rd (depending on which report you look at) largest export. Entire university systems (King Abdullah University) are being built from scratch for a few meager billion. World Bank, UNESCO, OECD, and other international agencies, have turned their attention to the “virgin forest” (Fast Company quote) of HE.

I think we will see radical change in parts of education. I’m not sure where we’ll see radical change and where we’ll see evolutionary change. Teaching is the most obvious area of dramatic change given the communicative aspect of technology development. Online learning is a viable option (EDUCAUSE and Sloan-C support this development…as does the report released by US Dept of Education a few weeks ago) to classroom only learning.

The research roles of universities, on the other hand, are well integrated into society. Accreditation also continues as an important role for universities to play in society. For now at least, these two roles of universities is fairly secure in society.

In my youth, I went on a silent spiritual retreat. Days without speaking – except for ~1 hour each day with a spiritual adviser. On day 3, he made a statement that has guided much of my thinking since: never move away from something – you never know where you’ll end up…always walk toward something – this ensures you end up where you want to be. If we desire to do away with universities because we think they are obsolete (and in many ways, they are), we really don’t know what the future will look like. Change is about moving toward what we desire. But many reform advocates are not really clear on this yet. For that matter, I’ll direct the question to you: What type of higher education system are you moving toward? What are you working to achieve?

It’s not peer review if you aren’t familiar with the subject

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I have been only partially active in publishing through traditional peer-review channels. I have published perhaps a dozen articles and book chapters through this process. I am active as a reviewer for about 10 different journals and conferences. Additionally, I’ve served as special editor and invited (non-peer review) author for several journals. As conference chair and co-chair I have also been involved in selection of papers, outstanding papers and posters, etc. I understand the review process as an author, reviewer, and editor.

But I’m dissatisfied, and growing more so, with the process for the following reasons:

  1. The process takes a long time (anywhere from about eight months to several years – depending on the field). By the time an article is finally in print format, it’s often partly obsolete, especially in the educational technology field.
  2. The process is not about quality. I’ll get into this a bit more later in this post, but from my experience, many, many good articles are poorly reviewed simply because the reviewer is not well informed in the area. I frequently turn down review requests when I feel I am not capable of serving the process well. I’m not convinced this is often the case. At several recent conferences, I was exploring the poster sessions (often comprised of articles that are “downgraded” to poster sessions at research-focused conferences). I was surprised at the exceptional quality of several posters. Inexplicably, excellent research-based papers were not receiving the attention they deserved (especially when accepted papers were of noticeably poorer quality). I can only conclude that reviewers failed to understand the research they were reviewing.
  3. The process is not developmental. With few exceptions, journals and conferences run on tight time lines. A paper that shows promise is often not given time to be rewritten due to time constraints. Peer review should be a developmental process (I threw out a few ideas on this process in Scholarship in an Age of Participation). Journals should not be knowledge declaration spaces. Journals should be concerned with knowledge growth as a process in service of a field of inquiry.

What then does a “good” review look like?

Let’s say it takes 40-80 hours to write a 5-7,000 word paper. A reviewer, in a timely manner of at most two weeks from initial assignment of the review, needs to:

  • Read the article for general coherence
  • Map out (mentally at minimum) the core arguments and support provided
  • Evaluate the suitability of research methodology to the questions being considered in the paper
  • Decide if the conclusions draw by the researchers/authors are warranted by the research conducted, paying particular attention to common research errors (such as causation/correlation, generalization based on too limited a sample, etc).
  • Validate the quality and appropriate use of references, noting any significant gaps in existing literature
  • Determine if the paper advances some aspect of knowledge in the field (i.e. does the paper say something new? Does it draw novel connections between disparate research? Does it debunk existing views held by researchers in the field, etc.).
  • Finally, based on literature, methodology, conclusions, and original contribution to the field, determine if the article is suitable for publication. If the article is not suitable for publication, the reviewer should recommend improvements to bring the article up to high standards or suggest why it is not suitable for amending (i.e. out right rejection). If the paper is submitted for a conference, the reviewer may recommend downgrading it to a poster session.

How long should this process take?

From my experience, reviewing an article is at minimum a three to four hour task if the reviewer is familiar with the citations and methods utilized by the author(s). In many instances reviewers will require more time. For example, I’ve encountered articles that address a core subject that I am familiar with (learning technology or something similar) and then utilize a framework from sociology or psychology to express a viewpoint. If I’m not familiar with the core topic, declining to conduct the review is the only sensible response. Assuming I am familiar with the core concepts, I then need to take time to research the peripheral topics in order to effectively review the paper. This alone can add hours to a review.

The problem of being current in a diverse field…

In the field of emerging technologies, too many reviewers are not current and as a consequence should not be reviewing papers. If a person has not blogged, taught using Second Life, experimented with Twitter, or is not aware of the development of open educational resources, social learning theory, or personal learning environments and learning management systems, then they have no business conducting a review. Keep in mind, peer review is about subjecting your work to experts in the field. Because the emerging technology field is young, many reviewers are simply not competent to be conducting the breadth of reviews that they conduct.

Complicating this concerns is the diversity of our field. Educational technology is an aggregate field. We can just as soon discuss Vygotsky as we discuss XML, motivation theory as cloud computing, and social networks as systemic transformation. Even when journals are focused on a particular subset of this complex field, articles and references will require reviewers to devote significant time to effectively review an article.

Why bother reviewing papers if it’s so difficult? Well, it’s difficult because it’s important. The quality of thinking of the educational technology field is influenced by the quality of the papers being published. As such, peer review should be far more iterative than it currently is. The best journal I have come across in this regard is Innovate (James Morrison is the editor). Dr. Morrison provides a review process that is personal and developmental. I recall reviewing one article four times over a short period of time. The final product hardly resembled the original paper (I still suggested rejecting the final article, but I was “out voted” by the other two reviewers). In this instance, the paper quality was substantially improved through review, recommendation, and rewriting.

Peer review is also a personal learning process. Reviewing an article forces a person (at least it does for me) into a critical state of mind. Reviewing articles is a rich thinking and learning process. The reviewer, as much as the reviewed, benefits in the experience.

Why I’m frustrated

I recently submitted an abstract, which was accepted, for a special edition of a well known journal.

About four months after submission, I received the following response:

While a well-written paper, it appears to be a cut-and-paste from someone’s thesis or dissertation. I do not see how the history of the university is relevant for [deleted to preserve anonymity]. Some of it (The Contemporary University) might be of value to the reader, but I don’t believe the majority would hold the reader’s interest. The pages and pages of references are also a dead give-a-way that this is someone trying to get their graduate work published – which is appropriate. But it doesn’t appear to me that the writer took enough time to tweak the writing such that it would be appropriate for this journal.

(for what it’s worth, it was not a cut and paste article, it was written specifically for this journal submission)

The reviewer also selected a few responses about suitability of the article, relevance to journal theme (which in my eyes was moot as the editor had already accepted the abstract, confirming journal theme relevance), with the letter ‘S’ or ‘U’ posted beside each category. What does that mean?? Uber-fantastic? Stunningly Sucky? I don’t know. I suspect probably some variant of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”.

This single review is what we (it was a co-authored paper) were given for rejection. No indication of ways to improve the article or suggestions for resubmission were offered. I was irritated (and still am). So I sent the editor the following email:

I find the quality of the feedback unacceptable, however. Based on what you provided, it appears that the reviewer paid scant attention to the article and its relevance for publication. The core assertion Dr. [deleted for anonymity] make is: information creation/dissemination patterns of an era is reflected in the design of a society’s knowledge institutions. [more deletions for anonymity purposes]. What we do around information is (more so than web 2.0 and technologies) foundational to how higher education will be transformed.

I fully understand if you and [name deleted for anonymity] as editors feel the article was not of sufficient quality to warrant publication. However, if your decision is based on the single review you provided below (by an individual who spent precious little time on the article it appears and whose most substantial comment is to state that it was cut and paste from a masters project due to number of references) it seems peer review was not well attended in this rejection.

I then received a response saying “We’re currently chasing down the second review and trying to understand why it wasn’t sent to you automatically as it should have been”. I have tremendous respect for the editor that composed this response (I’m not being sarcastic – I know the individual and would classify this person as a friend). I assume therefore that some type of software glitch occurred, which in itself raises concerns about how rejections are handled. But even then, my core concerns above – journal review as a knowledge growth and idea development process – are not addressed. And it’s not unique to this one journal. I think it’s endemic to the educational technology field.

Peer review via blogs

In contrast to the rather feeble review our article received, consider the quality and diversity of comments on this article I posted on this site last week. I do almost all of my article publishing on my elearnspace or connectivism site. It is very rare that I receive a similar quality of feedback from an academic journal. What is the future of peer review if it’s value to the author and the field is reduced due to time and quality of reviews? Is it any wonder that NBER is questioning peer review decline?

How do we develop reviewers?

How did you learn to do reviews? From informal discussion with peers, it seems that most people learn to do reviews by being thrown into the process. It might have started with reviewing a few papers for a conference or by being asked to sit on a journal editorial board. Regardless, it appears that most reviewers do not have formal “training” in conducting reviews. It’s a trial an error process, which places great responsibility on a journal editor to ensure reviews are well conducted.

It is both a privilege and a responsibility to review the best ideas of another member of the field. But it’s also a matter of personal reputation. Generally, depending on the review software, the editor will know who submitted the review. I find it personally satisfying to be invited to repeat conference and journal reviews based on effort put into previous reviews. I know of many others who share these views. My views of peer review have been heavily shaped by “old timers” who appeal to high quality paper review processes for journals and conferences. I just wish there were more editors who saw scholarship as iterative and developmental and held journal reviewers to high standards. I also wish we had more reviewers who recognized the opportunity they have to advance quality within the educational technology field. After all, we jointly hold each others success in balance each time we sit down and start typing out a review.

What are your experiences? Misery, of course, appreciates company. Do you have any particularly nightmarish journal experiences (as author, editor, reviewer)? Or do you agree with my assertion that journals should serve to develop ideas, not solely evaluate?

Change that prevents real change

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

I’m quickly turning into a curmudgeonly whiner.

Last week I was busy complaining about the flaws in existing open education models and how current activities a) fail to give educators a seat at the policy/power table and b) will, in the long run, hurt the socially conscious ideals many reform advocates strongly support.

If we are to have change, we might as well have the right kind of change. If we are going to expend energy envisioning a new world of education, we might as well be bold, creative, and future-focused. After all, good change and bad change require roughly the same amount of effort. Might as well pursue the highest ideals we are capable of forming.

All ideas need critique. When I encounter a new concept such as Flatworld Knowledge or open educational resources in general, I soon turn to exploring the critiques. If critiques are not available, I (naturally) wonder why. Not many things are “all good”. With connectivism, for example, I’ve sought out and highlighted people who disagree with what I’ve written on the subject. A theory or concept is only as good as the rigor to which it has been subject.

Let’s talk publishing.

Last year, with much attention, Flatworld Knowledge announced a new approach to textbooks.

I’ll start nitpicking: I don’t like the term Flatworld. As a concept it is obviously tied to Friedman’s text and has the air of hype. When I hear flat world references, I become critical of attached concepts. Why build a company on a buzzword that has been aptly criticized by Richard Florida? But this is a petty complaint. If the company is innovative and offers a new model, the name isn’t that consequential. Eventually it’ll be reduced to FWK Publishing (i.e. the KFC approach – when “fried” food became a health concern, the initials will do just fine).

But is the approach innovative?

On the surface, it appears to be. Learners can read the textbook online (though in an intentionally small window that makes reading unpleasant), or – for a fee – download for-print and audio versions as well as purchase a physical copy. Educators can customize (still in beta with the text I tried) textbooks by rearranging chapters and sections and adding annotations.

FWK textbooks are written by experts. Educators adopting texts can be reasonably assured of quality. Authors get paid. Students get a low cost text. Everyone wins. I think it’s a great model and I think it will succeed. More publishers will adopt this model. It’s almost inevitable.

But FWK will succeed for the wrong reasons. It will succeed because it tweaks the existing model of textbooks just enough to disrupt publishers, but not enough to disrupt the industry as a whole. FWK is integrated into the system of education: authors, bookstores, faculty, and students. It uses existing reward metrics (recognition and a little bit of revenue for the author) and addresses the biggest complaint students have about textbooks: costs.

Essentially, the existing system is used as the infrastructure for FWK model. And that’s the problem. I don’t believe we need the publisher as a mediator.

What is and what ought to be

TMI: I grew up in a very religious community. As an immigrant to Canada, I was taught (by my parents and the broader church community) that progress was inherently bad. Technology – computers in particular – were leading us to the end times. I grew up without television, radio, and many of the worldly tools/devices available to my peers.

I don’t regret my upbringing. It forms who I am as a person. One church-inspired lesson that has always stuck with me is the way in which the greater good (idealism) is manifest in practical daily grinds. Jesus, for example, calls his followers to impossibly high standards in Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount). How can a human being possibly live up to that high a calling?

The high standards serve as a target. The Greek word for sin (Hamartano) means to “miss the mark”. The pursuit of highest standards is important, in this line of reasoning, for the people we become through the process of longing to attain high ideals, not for the standard itself.

Bringing my religious background together with my technological life produces a similar appeal for high idealism. Mark Pilgrim’s rant about open enough is instructive: we too often accept open enough resources out of convenience rather than out of long term considerations.

This is a central conflict in web 2.0 vs. open source. Web 2.0 has few of the ideals of the open source movement. For many users, this is fine – free is the desirable trait. Monetarily free is not without cost. When Google decides a product is no longer valuable, it shuts it down (Notebook, Jaiku, JotSpot). When financial conditions change, companies holding our data suddenly disappear.

With regard to educational reform, our thinking should be future-focused. What is the impact of FKW? Is there a better way? Can we reduce costs and promote openness in an anti-textbook model? What could that possibly look like?

Convenient Change vs Principled Change

When trying to change a complex integrated system that includes numerous stakeholders – such as universities – a seat is required at the power table. Higher education is integrated into national competitiveness strategies, democratic societies, and corporate success/viability. Multiple stakeholders require engagement with all stakeholders in order to craft change. Grassroots revolutions are not of sufficient momentum to transform universities. The system is too integrated (i.e. a networked integration – systems of systems) and serves too many roles to be changed from single tension points.

When trying to disrupt a field – such as happens regularly with technology (iPod, Google Docs) – a brilliant idea is sufficient in itself. While systems like textbook publishing are integrated, the integration is within the system itself, not with other systems.

That sounds counter intuitive. I’ll clarify. Textbooks are systemically integrated in that the relationship between author/publisher/teacher/student is linear. It’s not a network integration (systems of systems). The student needs the textbook only because the educator does. Loose networked integration means commitment to the process wanes as the product moves down the line. When authors no longer need textbook publishers, the game is over.

Google is a company that understands systemic integration quite well. The prospect that I will abandon Google for another service diminishes as my use of their offerings becomes more and more integrated (Android, Latitude, Docs, iGoogle, Gmail, Reader, search, Blogger). Integrated webs create committed (locked in?) customers. Linear integration – where each entity down the line depends only on decision of the previous entity and the connections are not mutually enforcing – produce weak loyalty. I’ll abandon an email client (Hotmail, Yahoo) for a better service if it’s not integrated with other software.

Time to tie a few of these ideas together: textbook publishing is a weakly integrated field. The model itself is ripe for innovation. FWK will be successful because it tweaks enough of the system to keep the linear integration in tact, but not enough to disrupt the field itself. Perhaps we should pursue a more visionary approach – one that is tied to high ideals and provides the greatest number of future options.

Change that preserves and extends future options

I like the Wikibook and Wiki Educator models.

An evaluation (.pdf) of Wiki Educator states the site produced “71 Book equivalents…during 1 January 2008 to 30 June 2009″. The drawback? These resources are not always coherent. Scientific American explores the challenges of the “everyone contributes” model: “While the real power of open-source textbooks, Bridges and others say, is being able to tap into the knowledge of the nation’s 3 million schoolteachers, a look at the recent crop of books suggests that’s not an accurate reflection of how educational content is being created. So far, the front-runners were typically written by just one or several authors…” (remember the We Are Smarter book initiative? The goal was to have many people write the text. It failed. In the end, traditional authorship (two authors, I believe) produced the book).

It appears that we value collaboration more in principle than we do in practice.

David Wiley suggests that the “wiki way” = poor quality. Why do we collaborate less than our rhetoric suggests…and when we do collaborate, produce resources of (arguably) lower quality?

Perhaps we produce lower quality resources through collaboration because we are not used to writing together. Perhaps it’s because the reward system encourages egoistic publication. Perhaps it’s human nature. I don’t think War & Peace would be the same quality resource if it had been written by a network. But I really don’t know that for sure. I don’t think it has been tried often enough to be found wanting. I think it has been left largely untried.

Simply stating that collaborative projects have to date not produced the quality of resources that has been produced under the traditional authorship model is not satisfactory. Benkler’s assertion that (.pdf) module granularity and integration challenges are antagonistic to the wiki model (p. 22) is valid (at least he added “at present” in his argument :) ). However, as a culture of remix takes hold beyond a few early adopters, it’s reasonable to expect granularity integration to be less restrictive than it currently is seen to be. Perhaps a move from tecno brega to edu-brega?

It’s too early to convincingly declare select-authorship models of textbooks to be superior to wiki-created textbooks. Or, if we do make the declaration (as Wiley, Benkler and others have done), we need to focus on understanding why. It seems wrong to declare that connected intelligence is not capable of achieving the same level of quality as individual intelligence.

The need for collaboration is amplified by the growing complexity of information. As Kress and Pachler (.pdf) have stated: “What we have here is a transition from a stable, settled world of knowledge produced by authority/authors, to a world of instability, flux, of knowledge produced by the individual.” Single author models are not capable of innovating rapidly enough, or for that matter, providing a broad enough perspective of a subject.

If scientific research, development of art and literature, the internet, and the web all attest to the value of integration/connection/collaboration, I’m inclined to suggest the problem is not with wiki-textbooks, but instead with how we are approaching them. Something is wrong in our model of implementation, not with the model of creation.

Final Thoughts

When I first started thinking on this subject, I was quite negative on FWK. Having reviewed their site and their model in more detail, I’m less extreme in my views. FWK is an important advancement for textbooks. Many students this fall will be rather pleased at the reduced costs (though the books on the site are primarily confined to business and finance – another drawback: mediators seek areas of highest return first) of FWK texts.

The concept is open enough to keep many revolutionaries at bay (isn’t that often the main intent of partial change? provide enough change to satisfy the slightly less peripheral agitators? Staged or transitional change often plays a negative role in this regard. Partial change now pushes substantial change into the future). The idea is good enough to make investors quite happy – see open textbooks gaining ground. In this regard, I wish FWK well. It is an important contribution.

Now, if we can just find a way to make the pursuit of highest ideals (open & collaboratively produced textbooks produced by communities/networks of vested participants in this case) as rewarding (or compelling) as the pursuit of ‘good enough’.

Here we are…there we are going

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

I’m at Open Education 2009 in Vancouver. I’m enjoying the conference, in particular meeting up with many, many colleagues and friends. Much credit is due to the conference organizers: Scott Leslie, Chris Lott, Brian Lamb, and David Wiley.

A well-promoted pre-conference event included a dialogue with Stephen Downes and David Wiley (recordings – all six hours – can be accessed here). I wasn’t able to attend the session, but managed to catch a good portion of it via ustream. The conversation covered a large landscape: roles of teachers, self-directed learning, copyright, creative commons licenses, the role of liberal education in society, etc.

Reactions to the event varied (here and here). Open educational resources (OERs) are shifting to mainstream. When you have two early leaders (Wiley and Downes) the conversation can be expected to include a mix of idealism, philosophy, and technical details. My sense, as I listened to the presentation, was that the conversation needs to morph to better account for the interests of those who are only now entering the world of OERs. Downes and Wiley were largely speaking to “their own” – a group that is shrinking as a percentage of those who are interested in OERs.

Time to whine

I’m increasingly dismayed at the quality of thinking with regard to educational reform. OERs are, rightly I think, tied to reform. Opening up content is only a starting point. What does higher education look like when all content is freely available? Which systems of instruction and learning will we need to change? What will accreditation look like? The quality of discussion on this topic is not in proportion to the weight of the subject. I hear too many references to pop-psychology thinking (and am then accused of being elitist).

The importance of university reform should call us to do our best thinking.

But, what is the response by our community and quasi-researchers like Don Tapscott (see The Impending Demise of the University)?

Primarily rhetoric with a blend of nonsensical proclamations. Universities aren’t going anywhere. They are not going to disappear. Recent UNESCO (here and here) and World Bank publications (here) speak to the centrality of universities in international competitiveness.

Governments look to universities as the first pledge to participating in a knowledge economy. When governments want solutions to the big problems facing humanity, they turn to universities: global warming, H1N1, youth crime, addiction, nanotechnology, AIDS crisis, intolerance, and many others.

Are learners numbers decreasing? No. Higher education enrollment is steadily increasing (currently over 150 million). The next billion people to earn a degree will do so largely in universities and they will largely be from developing countries.

Universities – especially as research institutions – are centrally integrated structures, vital to democratic societies. They are staying.

What about the teaching dimension? Can the teaching function of universities be replaced by social networks, communities and alternative accreditation models? Absolutely. And, to a degree, it’s inevitable.

Managed and organized? Or chaotic, loosely joined?

During a lunch discussion on policy, the challenges were made clearer to me. Two views were presented: work within the existing system or create a secondary system. This tension is one that I’ve felt for quite a while (see this article from 2003), but it seems to be intensifying.

I would love to see courses more become more distributed and fragmented. Current conceptions of courses should be destabilized (or have a look at the online conference we hosted earlier this year: From Courses to Dis/Course). Classroom walls are useless.

Learning consists of weaving together coherent (personal) narratives of fragmented information. The narrative can be now created through social sensemaking systems (such as blogs and social networks), instead of centrally organized courses. Courses can be global, with many educators and participants (i.e. CCK08).

Courses, unlike universities, are not directly integrated into the power system of a society. Can decentralized networks of autonomous agents serve the same function as organized institutions?

But who loses, and what is lost, if the teaching role of universities decline?

Surprisingly, those people who are most active in advocating for the demise of the universities are the ones who will lose the most if it actually happens. I can’t provide exact statistics (though I know they exist), but liberal arts education is in decline – with the odd bump in increased enrollment, followed by decline again. Engineering, science, and technology have more funding and momentum than humanities and social sciences. Our world is becoming one of numbers, algorithms, and data. And of utilitarianism. Research=commercialization.

The biggest loser in the demise of universities would be socialism. I recognize that this sounds inherently contradictory – i.e. how can giving individuals control possibly equate with a loss of control collectively? Socially conscious thinking flourishes in universities like it does in no other public venue. The utilitarian focus of corporations has little tolerance for the more speculative discourse that occurs withing universities.

If universities are largely reduced to research institutions, the power balancing role of universities will suffer. Society is upheld by numerous pillars: government, religion, business/economics, and education. I’m not yet convinced that fragmenting the education pillar will result in a stronger, more just, more sustainable society. And, I am reluctant to support the notion that the remaining pillars of society will be able to absorb the pivotal role that universities currently serve.

Societies power pillars listen to each other. To have a seat at the table is to have a voice in policy and to have a greater prospect of influence. The argument can be made that government is comprised of people and therefore the values of a society will be preserved through democratic elections. So, even if education as an institution becomes distributed and fragmented, the will of the people will be reflected through general elections.

This view reflects a very idealistic orientation and largely ignores human nature. Many information structures are fragmenting – newspaper, music, movies – and many reform advocates suggest that distributed networks can do what organized structures have done in the past (such as Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head and through the network (of networks)). But the Second Superpower did not stop the war in Iraq. And the fifth estate Dutton proclaims has not yet proven itself to be sustainable other than for event-based functions – such as electing Obama. Once the task is done, the networks focus shifts. Obama would really like his network back now, I imagine, as he tackles health care reform. But the network arose only to serve a task (elect Obama). The constellation of factors required to activate the network to reform health care has not yet emerged. Hierarchical “government as usual” will have to attend to health reform.

The virtues that a society finds desirable are systematized in its institutions. However futile this activity, it helps society, and media, to hold people accountable, to devise strategies, and create laws so people feel safe. Similarly, results that are desirable (financial, educationally, etc) are systematized to ensure the ability to manage and duplicate results. I shared some thoughts on this systematization last year as a reason for the currently limited impact of personal learning environments (PLEs). Quite simply, even revolutionaries conserve.

Capitalism needs Marx

I have not encountered an effective and considered response to OERs. It’s not a situation where everyone wins. Openness has costs. Capitalism needs a Marx. Russell (or more broadly, philosophy) needs a Wittgenstein. OERs currently suffer from cute kitten syndrome – it seems almost unethical to have a negative stance. Scott Leslie has captured a few existing critiques, but I’d like to see greater analysis of impact. And to shift the discussion from “things are changing” to analysis of “what we are becoming”.

/Time to whine

I support openness. I support OERs (though I think the “resources” focuses too much on content and ignores the pedagogical dimensions of connecting with other learners). The research role of universities, due to its integration with government and policy, will morph and change, but will not disappear. Teaching is what is most at risk. Can a social network – loosely connected, driven by humanistic ideals – serve a similar role to what university classrooms serve today? I hope so, but I don’t think so. At least not with our current mindsets and skillsets. We associate with those who are similar. We do not pursue diversity. In fact, we shy away from it. We surround ourselves with people and ideas that resonate with our own, not with those that cause us stress or internal conflict.

Secondly, until all of society becomes fully networked (not technologically networked, but networked on the principles of flows, connections, feedback), a networked entity always risks being subverted by hierarchy. Today, rightly or wrongly, hierarchy holds power in society.